'Shut down the parts of internet used by Islamic State masterminds'

Joe Barton is angry about Paris killings. Also has no idea what he's talking about


Meet the rest of the world

All of the argument above is also applicable to domain names that live outside nominal US control, i.e., addresses on country-code top-level domains. Many ccTLDs in fact have stricter rules when it comes to content than the free-speech loving American system. Nominet in the UK for example has repeatedly suspended domain names after complaints from the police – usually causing complaints when they make a mistake.

However, there are also a large number of ccTLDs that have much looser controls, either out of a philosophical belief that unless something is actually illegal it should be allowed to remain online, or due to the fact that they don't have sufficient resources to act.

Also, groups like the Islamic State, as well as using fake names and fake addresses, will often use stolen credit cards in order to pay for their domains and hosting. They are all too aware of the US government's ability to subpoena information on accounts and use the global banking system to shut down accounts. And so they use stolen details.

Finally, when it comes to websites, it is necessary to consider the fact that the Islamic State rarely registers and operates its own domains and websites. Instead, it typically uses websites that let you post material: forums, chatrooms, and so on.

In this case it is down to the company running the website to act. It doesn't take a genius to realize that taking down an entire website with thousands of users and millions of posts because of what one person posts is not a realistic scenario.

The very utility of forums is that they are quick and easy to use. Is it realistic to ask everyone to go through some kind of vetting process before they can post? The answer of course is no, and the argument has been had dozens of times with the same conclusion.

Social media

What about the other side of things: Barton's concern about "the social media"?

This is a situation pretty similar to the forum approach outlined above. In this case, people are opening accounts and using a company's services to spread information.

Fortunately for Barton, most of these services – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on – are run by US companies and so are not only subject to US law but are also very susceptible to the American way of looking at things and deciding what is acceptable and what is not.

There are countless examples of what Twitter and Facebook are doing when it comes to the use of their services in distasteful ways. As social media has grown in importance, the struggles have grown larger and these companies have bent toward taking information down.

For a long time, Twitter took a very determined free speech approach, thanks in large part to its original general counsel Alex Macgillivray, who once described the service as "the free speech wing of the free speech party." The organization dealt with repeated criticism of what its users were saying and doing by standing behind their right to say whatever they wanted, and by refusing to hand over details of who they were to the authorities – without actually breaking the law of course.

As time has passed, that pressure has bent Twitter more and more to a more restrictive platform. Facebook has also acted similarly, again because of legitimate political pressure. Famously, German chancellor Angela Merkel recently buttonholed Mark Zuckerberg over the hate speech taking place on Facebook over the number of immigrants into Europe who were fleeing the violence in Syria and elsewhere. Facebook was not doing enough and had to do more, Merkel insisted. Zuckerberg promised to do so.

But just today a sign that those policies all too easily go too far when a woman who happened to be named Isis Achalee was banned from Facebook.

Isis is in fact a platform engineer and lives in San Francisco. But Facebook decided that she was a terrorist and has kicked her off the service for having a name that some people use to refer to the Islamic State. Even when she sent them a copy of her passport, the company refused to grant her access under her own name.

Rules, rules, rules

In short, social media companies are already doing what they can to limit the amount of material coming from groups such as Islamic State. And there are signs that they have in fact already gone too far.

Not only that, but the more that US companies impose a set of rules that derive from a US perspective and which start to impose restrictions on content, the less attractive those services become to users. And it takes mere seconds to leave one service and join an alternative. If people start to use services based outside the United States, then Barton's plans to shut them down grow even less likely, since the Congress' laws would have no jurisdiction over the companies.

As things stand, the security services dealing with the reality on the ground ironically prefer such accounts and websites to stay up – because that way they are at least able to monitor activity. And that's not conjecture. The CEO of Cloudflare Matthew Prince told The Reg this week that his company gets numerous requests from law enforcement over websites that his company helps protect from online attacks, and they almost always want to keep them up and functioning in order to monitor traffic.

The answer?

So what is the solution? In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it is understandable that Congressmen are itching to "do something" about the people behind the atrocities.

The real danger, as we have all comes to realize, originates not from citizens of the countries that are in turmoil – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on – but from citizens of the very countries that are experiencing the attacks. All the individuals involved in the Paris attacks have been French or Belgian citizens.

How does Islamic State manage to get across its destructive ideology to individuals from other countries thousands of miles away? The answer, in part of course, is the internet. It enables previously unimagined levels of quick and simple communication. And Islamic State's determined focus on recruiting people from western countries has caused it to become extremely fluent and adept at using these new online tools to change minds.

If history has taught us anything it's that no amount of laws will stop the spreading of ideas. Once the authorities have the power to act on clear risks – and they already have that authority in spades – the solution to continued atrocities is not more control, it is more education.

On the internet, where there are no guns or explosive vests, it is a battle of ideas not armaments.

And that is why Barton's calls for the FCC to regulate the internet as a way of tackling extremist ideas are so ridiculous. Not because of the intent, but because of the content. ®

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